“Please, save the lecture for another time,” Basil pleaded as he rested his pounding head against the filmy glass window. “I’m not in the mood.”
“You are never in the mood. Sir.” Mr. Lapf was a dull-eyed gentleman, who prided himself on the curl of his gray mustache and the intense burn of his glare. His traveling clothes—long-tailed black coat, gray undershirt, and silk tophat—were impeccable, as always. A gentleman, Mr. Lapf said, began with his clothes. “But you must understand that your father wants to help—”
“Father, father, father,” Basil mimicked, clapping his silk-gloved hands between each word. His pale lips curled into a snarl. “That’s all I ever hear about these days.”
“If you hadn’t been so reckless, he might have allowed you to stay home.” Mr. Lapf offered Basil a cup of tea, which rattled in the rush and bump of the train. A few brown drops flew through the air; Mr. Lapf intercepted them quickly, before they could tarnish Basil’s pristine uniform. The boy didn’t even notice. “If you hadn’t been so reckless, I tell you.”
“Reckless.” Basil laughed. It was a sharp, pointed thing that sliced through the air like the blade of a sword. “It was a mere joke, Gregory. No one understands jokes anymore, do they?”
Mr. Lapf recoiled at the informality from his ward’s lips. “I suppose not. Sir.” He handed the sour, spoiled boy a silver spoon to stir the sugar in his tea. “But you scared your mother. It was no mere joke to her.”
Basil slammed his gloved hand on the table as if he were a general ordering his men to fight. Mr. Lapf was unimpressed.
“Sorry,” Basil said and slumped into his chair.
Mr. Lapf had known Basil Bosworth since he was a wrinkly little thing wrapped in a crocheted white blanket. He had held the baby in his arms and looked at the expression of wonder in Basil’s beautiful brown eyes.
If only he had known the boy would turn out to be so much. . . like his father.
“Mr. Lapf,” Basil drawled and traced a gloved finger across the foggy window. Beyond the glass, an enormous and lethal cliff face climbed to the heavens. Sparse green and brown shrubs poked and wound their way across the pale granite like Mr. Lapf’s graying hair: those that remained clung on for dear life. “I don’t see what they think the country air will do to me.”
“Calm you, tame you, perhaps.” Mr. Lapf placed a scone onto a small china plate before his young ward. “It would do you some good.”
Basil scoffed and pushed the scone away. “I wish I’d broken something. Or lost an eye. That would make for a better story.”
“You could have died.”
“Ah, even better. A young death is so much more dramatic.”
Mr. Lapf narrowed his wizened eyes at the boy. “You’re a curious thing. A boy so eager for glory. . . At the expense of his own life.”
“You remind me of your father,” they said in unison, Basil adopting a mockery of Mr. Lapf’s papery voice.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Basil grumbled. He seemed bored by it all. “A great military general, an honor to be compared to him, so forth and so forth.”
A large bump in the railroad sent Basil’s tea into the air. Mr. Lapf had slowed with age and Basil had not an inch of athleticism in his body. The pair watched it cascade to the carpeted floor and soak into the Persian wool beneath their polished feet.
“Perfect,” Basil muttered. “And you still think this is a good idea? Nothing but bad omens, Mr. Lapf.”
“Nothing but bad omens indeed,” Mr. Lapf returned as a crack of thunder tore the sky in two and rivulets of heavy rain poured down the nearest window.
The train car Mr. Bosworth had rented for his son’s journey was crafted of the finest cherry wood in the country, smoothed and lacquered to perfection. Wide glass windows thrown open after the storm allowed a warm, heavy wind into the car. It seemed the entire place had been designed to create a sense of oppression and imminent gloom in whoever stepped within. Mr. Bosworth must have rented that particular car for that very purpose: when he could not belittle Basil himself, he made sure others could.
But Basil was not thinking about his father. Or, he was trying very hard not to.
Fine things existed to be enjoyed by fine people, Basil thought distractedly, as he admired the pearl inlay on the dining table. He brushed a white glove over the soft, iridescent surface and allowed himself a smile. Beauty was rare in his life and opulence was all he knew.
He wondered about this far away place his father had sent him to. He had heard stories of it and had seen drawings in geography books. Yet Volkmer, fantastic in name and myth, had yet to live up to his expectations.
In the train, which wound through the Volkmerian countryside like a snake in search of prey, they passed countless small farms and bungalows. He’d seen cows grazing in the late evening, horses galloping in the early morning, even chickens trotting across a long dirt road in the dead of night. The only humans he had seen appeared thick—in more ways than one—and were covered in sweat and dirt. Farmers, he realized, and pitied them.
He imagined himself as a great prince, traveling across the country to meet his betrothed or to act as ambassador to some powerful empire. This bronze, smoky train was his parade of servants and dowry. Mr. Lapf, however distant, would be his primary advisor. Yes, how beautiful this dream seemed to him. How unrealistic.
Beauty. What a thing to desire.
“Basil,” Mr. Lapf said, snapping the boy out of his own murky thoughts. “Tea?”
Basil stared at his caretaker with watery brown eyes. “No, thank you.”
Mr. Lapf stared at the boy a moment longer. “No tea?”
Basil was tired. So tired. Tired of being a Bosworth, tired of this stupid train, tired of being himself. His exhaustion was a heavy thing that squashed his sternum and strangled his throat.
Mr. Lapf hesitated by the door. His tall, but thin frame left an even thinner shadow across the stained Persian carpet. “If you change your mind.” He set the tea on the table beside him. “I’ll be in my quarters.”
Basil returned to tracing the pearl table. He wanted to go home— No, he didn’t want to go home. Not there with the cruel faces that stared and the lips that spoke such harsh words. He wanted to be free, to go where somebody actually wanted him to stay.
The train lurched as it rounded the corner and beyond the gentle curves of the gray mountains, Volkmer emerged.
Basil felt sick to his stomach. The place was a collection of brown and gray shacks stacked upon each other like the layers of a vile cake. Smoke hung low over the roofs and spires, an eternal blanket to the people below. The train had miles to go before it reached the station— Oh, the station!
Basil clapped a gloved hand over his mouth and thought quite seriously about fainting. The station was a squat, flat thing that resembled an awkwardly chopped block of wood. A skylight that had once been a lovely concoction of pale glass and brilliant copper was but a yellowing, rusting facsimile of its past self. It was the saddest thing he had ever seen, second only to the town itself.
What could he possibly hope to find here? Only a nasty case of black lung, he was sure.
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